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As you may know I'm in a bit of a cynic. I take a dim view of a lot of the "world changing", "3D printer on every desktop" talk. As I've seen the press descend from some signals and some noise to just noise, I've grown increasingly despondent about the press in general. If you can't call a local university and go by to see a 3D printer, if you don't bother to go to a local service bureau or read the Wikipedia article on the technology then how the hell do you hope to explain this technology to people?
And given the amount of misinformation, deception and stupidity in the media about 3D printing, how are these people supposed to explain Syria to me? If these guys don't take the time to watch a view YouTube video's to understand a straightforward technology then what must I think about the accuracy of their information on what the Iranian government wants or what is happening anywhere in the world? Really, you're going to explain North Korea to me? But, your unable to understand 3D printing? I've been able to give kids a coherent understanding of the technology and its limitations while getting them to design something that could be 3D printed in two hour workshops. This same level of depth of understanding is however not shared by the world's journalists.
In this tight deadline 24 hour news cycle world the press has no time to learn, explore or do in depth journalism. Instead our newspapers, TV Channels and online media are echo chambers through which early consensus about a chosen narrative reverberates incessantly. No depth of understanding is given. X is a breakthrough. X is amazing. X will change Y. X will change Z. Is X all its cracked up to be? X is terrible. X is super disappointing. Then they move on to a new topic.
A Greek chorus singing a happy song that turns into a sad one. And this chorus is about to turn against us. Without exploring in depth there are only so many directions one can go, and we're about to experience the negative side of things and go sliding into the trough of disillusionment. We deserve this. We had a good run. And collectively we did sprout a lot of bovine excrement into this curious planet's naive faces. We forgot to tell them that the machines are limited. We omitted to mention that when we said you could 3D print anything on the desktop that this was actually a blatant lie. We can't actually make every shape, especially not without support. And even if you could it wouldn't mean that shape is functional. And yeah you're going to have to spend 2000 hours learning CAD if you really want to be able to design.
There are some new interesting 3D printers coming out. But a lot of new releases and Kicksarters seem to have done their engineering in la la land. Its a slick campaign and a cool looking idea that will not work. You watch the video and can immediately conclude that a mechanical engineer didn't get within a million miles of this project. This is TinkyWinky our experienced business professional. This is Po who does business development. This is Laa Laa who does the marketing. And...and who did the engineering? Nobody? Interesting. Look, love the look and feel. Good copy on the page. But, did you perchance talk to a materials scientist? Ever think of, safety? You know there are like 3 ways that resin could kill you, right? These kinds of projects will probably not engender 3D printing to the world's tech cravingest. We've seen an influx of cowboys, the greedy and the MBAs as well as a lot of people who seem to tick all 3 boxes. Lets hope they don't blow it for everyone.
We can extend our happy time a bit with filament recyclers, they really make things much cheaper. A desktop 3D printed vase will not be $8 but it will be $0.60. Using a filament recycler you can grind up your misprints. You can grind up your broken things, grind up PET, HDPE, ABS and lots of packaging and other household waste to make filament. This will enable closed loop recycling in the home, and kill of much of the $55m a year desktop filament business and blow a big hole in a lot of people's business models. But, by making 3D printing much more environmentally friendly it will extend our press coverage and change the market. Because now you can sell a vase for a $1 and make a profit on it or give away a few to friends. This will expand the desktop market greatly and significantly lower the TCO and cost per part of desktop users. Who cares if it doesn't look consumer friendly, its cheaper than buying it from Wall Mart. Projects such as FilaMaker are our rays of hope. They will keep the camera crews visiting. That is if a capable filament recycler comes out soon.
3D printed prosthetics, e-NABLE
I blundered into e-NABLE, also known as Enabling The Future. I've been smiling ever since. I'd read about them earlier but it really is wonderful to see what they are doing with 3D printing. e-NABLE is a project that aims to make inexpensive 3D printed prosthetics. These come off desktop machines and cost between $25 and $50. They are designed by volunteer designers & engineers from all over the world. People work directly with the users of the hands to scope, get feedback, iterate and design. People work together on designs and components and also individually come up with entirely new reference designs. People volunteer to do the marketing, content, branding, legal, everything.
Some people have worn these prosthetic hands for several months. Replacing expensive prosthetic hands that cost thousands and would not be affordable to many. The e-NABLE community is also hyper decentralized meeting in Google Hangouts and communication on Google+. There is a web page. But, most content, exchanges and interaction happen in a decentralized way using free communication tools. All the work and materials have been fronted by the engineers or paid for by the customers so e-NABLE has next to no overhead. Its pure decentralized open innovation as has been talked about often but rather actually occurred.
How to join e-NABLE?
- Sign up for the e-NABLE Google+ Community
- Introduce yourself.
- Fill out your information, skills, experience and what you want to do.
- You will be contacted and matched with a task, person needing prosthetic, engineer etc.
That's it. I've spent quite some time managing communities and am very intrigued by this set up. I love the idea of people leveraging their work skills to use the internet to help others. In a time when "liking" something is as close as many get to helping other people this kind of a movement can be significant. It also combines well with ones personal life, letting one drop in, do a task and then drop out if work pressure or the new baby don't let you volunteer. Instant convenient armchair volunteering for the ADHD generation. I also love that this is a functional application for desktop 3D printing that actually works. Using the key strengths of 3D printing of being able to customise, iterate, change and design quickly they've created a family of functional products. Now by using flexible filament and the like many more designs are coming to the fore. If you'd like to leverage your design or AM skills, I'd highly recommend helping out.
I spoke to Jon Schull one of the founders of the project. John thinks that "e-NABLE's crowdsourced humanitarian innovation is not necessarily restricted to hands." "Arms are being worked on and there are many other areas e-NABLE could impact." He loves the combination of "emerging technologies and smiling children." He describes the community as "self-selecting bright community that sometimes may need some 'cat herding' or collective vision but generally functions near autonomously." He also says that "I don't know yet how we do what we do." Much of e-NABLE's development was spontaneous with people getting involved and coming up with novel designs in isolation.
Meanwhile collective cooperation, open discussion and some organisation have happened since. They are now trying to collect data on the usefulness of the prosthetics, working on robustness, assembly and new design directions. They are also looking at software tools that will let people collaborate even more and looking for corporate or government sponsors to professionalise the administration and information sharing. If you're an engineer or business person working in AM please do check out e-NABLE. Theres a lot of effort and knowledge going into the community but strong AM, production, materials and design knowledge is needed. Maybe you could give a helping hand?